Even though the organization has only staged two plays in its first year, New Ground Theatre chooses to measure success by quality more than quantity. And New Ground has been rising after being started last year by a woman with an idea and funding from local organizations.
Chris Jansen, a longtime Quad Cities resident, decided she wanted to give the local theatre scene a taste of contemporary plays that have been performed in larger cities such as New York and Seattle, as well as college towns such as Iowa City. "Most of the scripts are very contemporary, very popular, and very successful in bigger cities," Jansen explained. "A handful of the plays we're doing, or have already done, are Pulitzer Prize winners - which explains the level of theatre we're going for."
Pat Flaherty, the lead actor in New Ground's Dinner with Friends, agreed that the script choice is a big factor in the success of the group. "This is an incredible organization," he said. "The scripts we use are fresh, modern, and it's good, quality literature. The edgy kind of stuff is out there, but it's hardly ever brought to the Quad Cities."
Once Jansen had secured funding - in the form of private donations and two small grants from the Iowa Arts Council - to stage shows in the Quad Cities, she had to find actors.
"Basically I gathered a group of talented people I was familiar with, to test the waters, because I knew the first few shows could make or break us. If we didn't have a paying audience, we weren't going to be able to keep going." But audiences came in February, with The Waverly Gallery, and this summer, with Dinner with Friends. More than 200 people saw the first New Ground show, and more than 300 came to the second. New Ground lost money with both plays, but less with Dinner with Friends.
Jansen stressed that shows aren't cast with the same actors. "Each cast is different, and as we expand our following, we hope to gain more new talent on stage," she said. "But I wouldn't classify New Ground as 'a group,' because there aren't too many regular actors we rely on. New Ground is actually more of an idea - and everything stems from that."
New Ground's 2002-3 season is supported by a $20,000 grant from the Riverboat Development Authority, and that has helped give New Ground the ability to do what most local theatre groups can't - pay its workers.
Although Circa '21 also pays its actors and workers, it is classified as professional theatre and has equity actors (actors who belong to a union and are required to receive higher pay than non-equity performers). New Ground is regional/professional theatre, which means there are no equity actors yet, but Jansen hopes that will change soon.
"But it's not volunteer. Everyone still gets paid," Jansen emphasized, "the actors, the set crew, the technical workers - everyone. We're able to bring in some really talented people this way that we probably couldn't have had otherwise."
So far Jansen has directed the plays, but she hopes to bring outside directors to help with future shows. "And not only directors," she added, "but also local playwrights to contribute original works." That way, Jansen hopes writers from the Quad Cities area can have opportunities to see their ideas come to life on stage. New Ground considers Rebecca Gilman, the author of its upcoming production Spinning Into Butter and a University of Iowa graduate, a "local" playwright, even though her plays have also been performed in large cities.
Jansen said that Spinning Into Butter was originally Augustana College's project - and the college was interested in collaborating with New Ground to give the organization more exposure and opportunity. Jeff Coussens, the theatre director at Augustana, will play the lead role, and Jansen will direct the show, which will play for two weekends in early September at Rivermont Collegiate and Augustana College.
Gilman's Spinning Into Butter was originally commissioned by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and premiered in the spring of 1999. Recipient of the Scott McPherson, the Osborn, and London's George Devine awards, the play perfectly fits New Ground's standards.
Spinning Into Butter is the story of a small, private college whose faculty has been suddenly challenged to identify racist behaviors and ideas that are circulating around campus. But as administrators search for outside sources to the ongoing problem, they fail to see where racism might be present within their own thoughts and ideas. This self-examination gives way to some unique and hurtful insights.
And if the plotline isn't interesting enough, it's given even more weight when performed at a small, private college, such as Augustana. "Ironically, this past spring, after we had already agreed to perform Spinning Into Butter, there were some racial incidents at Augie," Jansen said. "We didn't know if we should continue with the performance, but in the end, we decided that it would be better to face these kind of issues."
And maybe, with the play will be staged at the college for one weekend, it will hit closer to home for some in the community.
New Ground's 2002-3 season also includes three other award-winning contemporary plays. After Spinning Into Butter, New Ground will explore the story of a mathematician and his students with Proof. In January, the organization will stage Wit, and next summer, Journey for a Reason. With two successful plays under its belt and the more scheduled, New Ground Theatre is giving the Quad Cities a breath of fresh theatre.
Spinning Into Butter will be performed at Rivermont Collegiate September 6, 7, and 8 and at Augustana College on September 13, 14, and 15. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Admission is $7 at the door. Call 326-7529 for reservations.
Other notable Quad Cities theatre this fall
At the schools: Local colleges have promising fall shows, ranging from musicals to poetry styles on stage. Augustana College begins its three-show season in late October with Kaufman & Hart's George Washington Slept Here, a comedy about American and family life in the early 20th Century. St. Ambrose also uses October for the musical Gypsy. Black Hawk College will give eulogies with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology in mid-November.
At the Barns: Playcrafters has an early start on fall theatre, with the murder mystery A Shot in the Dark opening next weekend. Richmond Hill also has an early September murder mystery, All Because of Agatha. In early October, Richmond will bring to life Steve Martin's brilliant script Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Musically Speaking: Ghostlight Theatre and FONZ Theatre will feature the musical 1776 as part of a one-year-anniversary tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The cost of tickets is $17.76, and admission prices benefit the American Red Cross. Music Guild ends its 2002 season in early December with Walton Jones' classic The 1940s Radio Hour. Circa '21 is just ending up a run of its Always ... Patsy Cline and will be shouting out praises in Sing Hallelujah, which begins its six-week run on September 18. The Adler will host Grease on October 22 as a part of its Broadway series.
For performance dates and more information, see the River Cities' Reader calendar.